Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Disney baby. Growing up in Upper Manhattan, he remembers watching the original “Mary Poppins” on a “puffy” white VHS cassette, over and over, losing his mind over “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius.” Some 30 years later, Miranda found himself on the London Shepperton Studios set of “Mary Poppins Returns” playing Jack the lamplighter, the grown-up apprentice of Bert the chimney sweep (Dick Van Dyke), singing a new music-hall patter number in the style of “Jolly Holiday,” which Van Dyke rattled through long before anyone knew how to rap. “These songs are cousins with hip hop,” Miranda told me.
While Miranda’s claim to fame is the Broadway breakout rap musical “Hamilton” — which showcased his astonishing skill set as a Stephen Sondheim-level musical creator and song-and-dance man — truth is, he’s always been on a Hollywood career track. Disney was his entree. Now he’s in full sprint mode.
It all started back in 1990, when Miranda pretended to be sick and cut school to pick up the first VHS cassette of “The Little Mermaid” when it hit his local drugstore. “‘The Little Mermaid’ blew my mind when I was 10 years old,” he said. “It was the first movie that was for me. When ‘Under the Sea’ started, I remember feeling weightless in the movie theater: ‘You can stage a musical number under water?'”
At Wesleyan, Miranda started writing musicals like 2008 Tony-winner “In the Heights” because it struck him that, outside of a few roles like Bernardo in “West Side Story,” “no one was going to write my dream part,” he said. “And I couldn’t dance well enough to be one of auxiliary sharks. I started writing musicals because if I wanted a life in this world, I had to create my own opportunities. ‘In the Heights’ has a ton of Latino roles and none of us has a knife in our hands. It’s a celebration of community and family and what home means when your family is somewhere else.”
In 2014, when he was still writing “Hamilton,” Miranda competed against the industry’s top songwriters to join the team on Disney’s animated musical “Moana.” He told “The Little Mermaid” animators Ron Clements and John Musker that their film changed his life. “That went incredibly well,” he said. “I found out I was having my first child the day I got the job. I flew to New Zealand that night.”
After “Hamilton” launched at the Public in 2015 and moved to Broadway, Miranda had to carve out time to write “Moana” songs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he would share what he had done with the Disney team at 5pm Skype meetings. The animators were waiting on him, so he did not have the luxury of taking the entire year it took to write the “Hamilton” hit “My Shot.” In some ways, writing “Moana” provided “joy and oasis,” he said, as his life became increasing crazy.
Miranda worked on all of the seven original songs for “Moana,” plus two reprises and two end-credit versions of songs from the film. Of course, Miranda’s Stephen Sondheim-level skills as a lyricist —he effortlessly meets rhyming challenges from some of his 2.6 million Twitter followers —are perfectly suited for a Disney musical. (A book of his tweets in in the works.)
For Oscar-nominated “How Far I’ll Go,” Miranda went back to how he felt at Moana’s age when he was 16, “a Puerto Rican kid in upper Manhattan, and the gulf between me and what I want to do with my life seems infinite. That was my way in. It took a couple drafts. It’s not about not loving where you are — she loves her family and she loves her island, she understands the role she plays and is fine with that — but the idea that you’re not supposed to be here and are meant to do something else, was very relatable to me.”
Miranda did not write songs for “Chicago” Oscar-winner Rob Marshall’s latest musical (he left that to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the team behind “Hairspray”), but happily starred opposite Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins. She revisits grown-up Jane and Michael Banks, living in Depression-era London, and introduces Michael’s three children to her magical skills — and Cockney lamplighter Jack. It’s a sequel, not a remake, Miranda reminds; writer David Magee (“Life of Pi,” “Finding Neverland”) had eight P.L. Travers Mary Poppins adventures to tap.
“Mary Poppins Returns” “is the fruit of the harvest,” Miranda said. Marshall wanted to cast him because, he said, “you have a childlike innocence I don’t think a lot of adults have.”
“That’s how I get to go into Mary Poppins’ world,” said Miranda. During rehearsals, “Into the Woods” veteran Blunt reassured Miranda that when Marshall says he got the shot, he got the shot. “Your job is just to give him everything.”
The movie’s opening shot demanded a manual dexterity the non-athletic Miranda wasn’t sure he had. Once he got his song down cold, he had to master riding his bike Gertie, weighed down with a heavy ladder on one side, which he practiced all over the Shepperton lot. “I didn’t play sports,” he said. “I can learn a dance routine, but stealing an apple while feeding an orphan while riding a bicycle is a new skill set I now have.”
On set, he also rehearsed for the all-night shoot when he and a squadron of lamplighters on bicycles bore down on shut-down Buckingham Palace for “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” The next day he practiced throwing a hat on a lamp post for another shot. While performing on stage was about hitting the same yoga poses in front of a different audience night after night, movies are an adrenaline hit when you realize “we are not coming back,” he said. “‘There’s no second take on top of Big Ben, homie.’ That’s the joy of it.”
Miranda knows he’s not the best singer-dancer in the world, but he’s a quick study. “It was exhilarating,” he said. “I tricked myself not to think about how daunting the dancing, singing, and accent were. ‘I’m going to learn from Rob Marshall; I will watch one of best directors of musicals direct a musical for a year.’ I wanted to learn from the best. This was film school for me.”
Needless to say, Miranda wants to direct. He watched Marshall’s “planning and meticulousness,” he said. “He deputizes his brain: John De Luca, his partner at solving problems, is whispering in people’s ears, he has three associate choreographers who are his tentacles. He splits his hive mind. I’m stealing that: having a braintrust that understands the vision.”
He hopes to test those skills with the Jonathan Larson musical “Tick, Tick… Boom!” Set up with Imagine Entertainment, Miranda is attached to direct from a script by Steven Levenson (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and plans to start filming at the top of 2020. The late Larson wrote the ambitious autobiographical sci-fi fantasy musical before “Rent,” but no one wanted to make it. “Everyone told him it had too many characters, was too weird. He was still struggling as a composer,” said Miranda. “I saw that my senior year of college, it spoke to me even more than ‘Rent.’ It’s about the one still doubling down on their dream while everyone else has their real jobs. Everything I have been doing is preparing for this.”
Next up: After passing through the hands of Universal and The Weinstein Co., “In the Heights” finally will go into production at Warner Bros. next year for a 2020 release. Jon M. Chu (two “Step Up” musicals, “Crazy Rich Asians”) will direct the $15-million project adapted for the screen by original stage book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes and Marc Klein, with producers Anthony Bregman, Scott Sanders, Mara Jacobs, and Miranda, who starred in the original as a man who inherits money and plans to shutter his bodega and retire to the Dominican Republic. Rita Moreno and Anthony Ramos are in talks to star.
“All the things we talked about, gentrification, immigration, Quiara’s done smart updates to the material,” Miranda said. “The director is going through a worldwide casting search. For ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ they cast both all-stars and people you’ve never seen before. I’m hoping they do the same magic.”
A decade ago, Miranda wrote an animated musical, “Vivo,” for DreamWorks, which he got back in turnaround. After “Hamilton,” when Hollywood asked what he had in his trunk, he quickly set up the 11-song musical at Sony Animation (November 26, 2020). Hudes has updated it, and Kirk DeMicco (“Croods”) directs. Miranda is hands on, and may voice one of characters.
He’s also committed to a Disney live-action remake of his old fave, “The Little Mermaid.” “If they ask me to write new lyrics for Alan Menken, I’m happy to,” he said. “It will be what the script requires. It’s still in development.” And of course, a film version of “Hamilton” is also in the works with Hudes on tap to adapt the script.
Miranda is also executive-producing the 2019 FX series about dancer-choreographer-director Bob Fosse starring Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon (“Hamilton” director Thomas Kail directs). And Miranda is featured in two episodes of the BBC series based on Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” (2019). And on January 6th, Miranda is up for his first Comedy/Musical Film Actor Golden Globe.